Biltong making at home – A Quick Introduction

The background history of biltong

In the past, biltong was usually made from beef or venison (game). However, the slow ox carts used by the early African settlers in South Africa required the preservation of meat for times when it was impossible to buy meat.

Americans who think biltong is another form of jerky or compare biltong to charcuterie or other forms of processed meat should keep in mind that biltong is never exposed to high temperatures such as fire or boiling, is never processed in humid conditions such as cold storage, and is very rarely smoked in any form.

Any beef cut can be used to make biltong, but the best cuts are those with long, softer muscles, like fillet, sirloin, topside, or silverside.

These cuts may go by a different name, depending on where you live. For instance, sirloin is known as porterhouse in Australia, while silverside is known as rump roast in the US.

Although meat’s fat content varies, fatty cuts deteriorate faster than lean ones.

It was then seasoned with salt and any available spices (such as pepper, coriander seeds, garlic, onions, chilies, sugar, and even Worcestershire sauce) to boost the meat’s flavor.

As a result, the strips of meat were rarely thicker than a man’s hand.

The spiced meat was typically air-dried on tree branches or linen in hot, dry, shady places with good airflow until the majority of the moisture was removed (this process could take anywhere from one to 24 hours, depending on taste).

Biltong can last several months if kept dry and in cloth or paper bags.

Biltong, boerewors and droëwors

Biltong, boerewors and droëwors

The smaller meat fragments were ground into sausage, then stuffed into the animals’ cleaned intestines. Boerewors is an African word that means “farmer’s sausage.”

The same ingredients used to make biltong could also be used to make these sausages, which were air-dried alongside the biltong. This was known as droëwors (African for “dried sausage”).

South Africans’ local term for a barbecue is a braaivleis (“grilled meat”) at least once a month, preferably every weekend if they can afford it.

Today, most butcher shops, supermarkets, and biltong delis in South Africa sell boerewors, biltong, and droëwors in various cuts, thicknesses, shapes, and flavors.

As meat became more expensive, along with biltong and droewors, many people started making their biltong at home, DIY.

Biltong spices and seasoning

We usually use a traditional recipe for 10 kilograms of meat, so it’s super easy to adapt to the meat we buy.

Ingredients for 10 kilograms of meat:

  • Approximately 100 to 200 grams of coarse salt
  • Vinegar – 300 ml to 1 liter (to taste, it depends on whether you want to use it for sprinkling over the biltongs with the spice mix or to marinade them). Traditionally, inexpensive white or brown vinegar was used, but any vinegar (malt vinegar, wine vinegar, balsamic, apple cider vinegar, or even lemon juice) may be interchanged.

Traditionally most used ingredients:

  • 5ml to 10ml of black pepper
  • 40 to 80 grams of coriander seeds (roasted in a pan and coarsely ground.

Optional and to your taste

  • Sugar (white or brown) – 70g (sweeten it, in South Africa, it’s usually cane sugar)
  • Chili powder or red pepper – 5g to 15g (typically used to spice it up)
  • Worcestershire sauce (liquid or dry spices ) – 50ml or 20g (to taste), yes, it’s that bottle you never used in the panty, and now with biltong you will, it’s “wu-stuh-shuh-saws” – I know you were thinking that.
  • Garlic or onion powder or flakes – 10 to 20grams

If you live in a humid area, you can prevent mold by adding the following ingredients:

  • 10 grams of baking soda/sodium bicarbonate, In comparison to the amount of vinegar, the amount of baking soda used is relatively small.
  • Saltpeter – 10g. It is only recommended when making biltong in a humid climate to prevent mold growth on the meat.

Cutting the meat before drying

I cut the meat before drying it.

Using a sharp knife, cut the raw meat into long strips along the muscle, with the direction of the grain.

When it is time to eat the biltong, it is usually cut into 1 to 5 mm thick slices, but if you are lazy, you can chew on the strips as you go. There are specific tools like biltong cutters, as it’s very dry meat and hard to slice and cut.

The length depends on the height of your drier because you do not want the strips to touch the floor or anything else

If you have a drying room or cabinet or use a warm, dry area like a laundry room, length is not a problem, except that long, heavy pieces can tear off the hooks you use.

Commercial biltong is usually between 20 and 60 cm long, about 10 to 25 mm thick, and 3 to 10 cm wide.

The thickness varies according to taste, but remember that thicker pieces take longer to dry, even 2 to 3 times as long as thin pieces.

A sharp knife is a must; we usually cut flat strips between 5 to 20 mm thick and 15 to 100 mm wide.

Adding the spices and marinating the meat

Adding the spices and marinating the meat

You can soak or marinate the meat in vinegar and spices for two to 24 hours or rub the meat with the spice mixture and drizzle with vinegar only.

Both methods have worked well for us.

Most supermarkets and spice stores should carry all spices.

Coriander seeds should be dry, preferably dry roasted in a pan and coarsely ground.

Place the spices of your choice in a spice grinder and grind thoroughly. You can also mix them in plastic bags, containers, or bowls.

It does not matter what type of container you use (steel, enamel, plastic); it just needs to be large enough to hold the meat.

A millimeter of vinegar should be poured into the bottom of the container.

Please start with the largest pieces of meat and rub them with the mixture, creating a thin layer.

The first time it can be difficult to estimate the amount, but after some experience, it will become easier.

As you layer the meat in the large container, drizzle each layer with a little vinegar, just enough to wet the spices.

Once all the meat is in the container, cover it with a lid, plastic wrap, or cloth to keep insects out, and let the meat soak/marinate in the resulting brine.

The rest of the process depends on the amount of vinegar used and the soaking time.

The longer you soak the meat, the more vinegar, salt, and spice flavors will be absorbed by the meat, and the more the meat will dry out before the air-drying process even begins!!! This is very important to know and a typical beginner’s mistake. Do not let it soak too long! It took us a couple of tries to figure this out.

As a rule of thumb, if you do not like strong flavors or a very salty or sour taste, do not soak the meat for more than 2 to 4 hours, but expect the drying process to last a day or two longer.

Suppose you are concerned about a humid climate, the freshness of the meat, or possible pathogens in your biltong. In that case, you should soak it longer and use the recommended saltpeter and bicarbonate of soda in your spice mixture.

Remember that the spices enhance the flavor, but all have a drying and preserving effect on the meat.

This means that the longer you soak or marinate the meat, the less likely you are to contract any pathogens that may have contaminated your meat before preparation (and get sick from the meat).

If you soak the meat for less than 4 hours, you can dry each piece when you remove it from the container before hanging it in your drier.

Use paper towels or a clean, dry cloth to dry each piece, and gently rub off excess spices.

You will also notice that some excess spices will fall off the biltong during the drying time.

If you soaked the meat overnight or longer than 4 hours, rinse off the brine and excess spices with a warm mixture of 2 parts water and one part vinegar before drying and sprinkling with a light spice mixture (without salt).

Hanging the biltong out to dry

Hanging the biltong out to dry

Traditionally, biltong was dried outdoors in a hot, dry, yet shady place with good air circulation.

A string was threaded through one end of the biltong and tied over a three-branched piece of wood or wire. Some even used tree thorns to hang the biltong.

Sometimes the children had the task of keeping insects and small animals away from the dried meat by using reeds or small twigs with a few leaves on.

Nowadays, the smaller commercial dryers provide plastic rods or dowels to hang the meat and fairly strong plastic S-shaped hooks to pierce the meat and hang it on the rods.

If you build your biltong box or have a drying closet or room, you can use the same rods, wires, or ropes to support the weight of the meat you want to hang.

You can use plastic or steel hooks, clean wires, plastic-coated wires, or paper clips. Never use wooden hooks.

Try to hang the meat at least a centimeter apart, and ensure the pieces do not touch each other or the sides or bottom of your biltong box. Otherwise, mold may form, and the drying process will take longer.

You can hang the biltong in a warm, sunny place on the first day if you do not have too many problems with insects or small animals in your home.

If you are using a biltong box, you can use a hot light bulb or drier element for the first day or two to provide warm, dry air, but be careful: biltong should not be cooked in any way! It’s all about drying, not cooking.

The biltong box or drying area should be well-ventilated and provide a gentle airflow over the meat. Most commercial and custom biltong boxes use fans to create airflow and small holes in the box’s sides to ensure the air flows all over the meat.

An extractor fan can be used, but a correctly placed computer CPU fan blowing into the biltong box also works fine.

Just be careful not to have a strong draft blowing directly on your meat, as this can cause curing. In other words, the biltong may get a thick, hard/tough purple-brown rind on the outside while the moisture remains trapped inside the red interior.

Ideally, you will have a thin rind and an evenly dried interior to your biltong. The inside should be pinkish-red to reddish-brown and can be cooler, but it should not feel moist.

Note that biltong treated (in humid areas) with saltpeter and baking soda for mold will have a much redder final color but should not be moist inside.

If you prefer softer biltong, with a good dryer and thin cuts, your biltong can be ready to your liking in 2 to 3 days.

The usual time for medium coarse cut biltong is 3 to 5 days for softer biltong and 4 to 7 days for drier biltong.

Thick, heavy, large biltong can be ready between 5 days and 2 weeks in a small home dryer, slightly faster in a larger drier or drying room, and much faster in a commercial dryer.

African classic quality biltong

There you have it, a quick guide to making African classic quality biltong.

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